The 5 Peaks Great Canadian Crossing: 4800km in a year

I ran the distance across Canada for the 5Peaks Great Canadian Crossing in one year and can barely bring myself to write about it. My Strava feed reads like a well-worn diary to match the handwritten one in my bedside stand. Scrolling through it before writing this post was like peering back at a stranger I no longer recognize, watching her transform through each kilometer covered to complete the challenge a different person.

The quantifiable part of this challenge is easy to sum up; from July 1st, 2020 to June 30th, 2021 I covered over 4800km entirely on foot. It consisted of two 100mile (160km or more) events, and 7 other ultras with distances ranging from 43km to 120km, 8 marathons, 14 mountain summits and over 11 mountain areas hiked in for over 52 000m of elevation gain.  Every single kilometer tracked was outside in every kind of weather and over 90% of those kilometers were at a run pace for a total of nearly 600hrs. Not one single in-person race.

I earned a nice big medal for my accomplishment. But what I’m really interested in is all the other things I have gained and lost in the meantime.

I decided to sign up for this challenge as an antidote to the disappointment I felt when we had to cancel our planned road trip across Canada. It was a trip that both my husband and I had done with our families when we were kids, and we wanted to replicate that with our own children while they were old enough to travel well, and young enough to still want to hang out with us. That’s a small and quickly closing window. But instead of packing up to hit the road, I laced up and hit the trail for a Canada Day run across the city from one side of the Anthony Henday Drive ring road, to the other, and back, for a total of 77km along the North Saskatchewan River. Ten days later I made it to 24 hours in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra for a cruise-y 161 kms in my neighbourhood in a 6.7km lap run on the hour, every hour until I timed out. The rest of July was spent recovering on mountain trails and leisurely runs with friends. Covid numbers were low, the panic attacks I had struggled with in June were resolving and I was off to a great start on the challenge.

August had different plans.

A last-minute change of plans from running the Canmore Quad thanks to the closure of the Lady MacDonald trail in Canmore, meant that Tania and I decided to do a 50km day on Mount Northover in Kananaskis instead. A fall while crossing a snow field, left me with a massive scar on my head and a changed perspective as I realized how fragile life is and that coasting on autopilot was no longer ok. I really examined what I wanted out of my life and started to make some changes to shake things up and see how the cards would fall. (Fast forward a few months and I started my master’s degree in counseling psychology and had a whole new relationship with my husband.) The one thing that remained constant?

My determination to keep running.

With the help of some great friends, I was back at the top of a mountain in no time, with a gorgeous day at Landslide Lake in David Thompson country basking in the incredible privilege it is to be alive.

Autumn brought more disappointment as the expected rise in Covid numbers derailed our naïve optimism to host the first ever Run On trail race in support of Amy’s House. However, in true pandemic fashion, Amy’s husband Phil, and I made the most of it and still had a great day on the trail with friends and raised a ton of money for the house.

Shift. Recalibrate. Move on. Anyone else sensing a trend for the year?

Heading into winter, I needed a new challenge to keep me going so I committed to a run streak and diet changes for November. Those dark days refined the clarifying process that started as I lost control on the side of Mount Northover and continued into an even darker December. My Strava feed during that time captures the intensity of those emotions with snippets of poetry, song lyrics and literature woven with stories told by each run. Some runs left without any captions at all. Those were the hardest. Those were where the really painful growth was happening.

The hope we all felt while we watched the dumpster fire of 2020 disappear barely made it past New Years Day as new rounds of restrictions dragged our uncertainty into yet another year. I watched dreams of my goal race move further on the horizon and kept doing the only thing I know how to do well. Put my shoes on. Go for another run.

I poured myself into counselling theories and neuroscience. Textbooks and essays punctuated by workouts and long walks with my family and trips to the mountains as often as we could manage including a sunrise run up Ha Ling I will never forget. Somehow, the lure of collecting kilometers for this challenge kept me clawing forward. In a strange way, I was thankful for the pandemic in how it slowed my world down and gave me the gift of time. Less commuting time, no kids’ activities, no social gatherings or events to fill my weekends. It could well be into my retirement years before I will have that kind of time available ever again. It has been a strange blessing. A gift I did not even know I wanted until I slowed down enough to realize it was what I needed.

 After each workout, I received a quirky email from a site called Challenge Hound that lightheartedly reminded me how I was progressing on the challenge with subject lines like “Funkadelic work on your 10.3km run” and it would let me know if I was on pace to finish on time. By mid-April I realized I had stopped receiving those emails because I had completed the challenge already. I had originally signed up for the Run/Walk/Bike option and my bike kilometers added up quickly. I calculated that I could take out my bike kilometers and finish the challenge entirely on foot if I averaged 100km per week. It was exactly the kind of incentive I needed to make the most of my otherwise uneventful spring. 100km a week is a stretch for me. I can comfortably do 70-80km/week so this would be uncharted territory for me to aim for so much for the last 12 weeks of the challenge.

Another round of lockdowns meant the time needed for that was actually available to me, so I decided to go for it.

The high mileage weeks felt pretty good at first. I did a few marathons and other birthday long runs with friends (a strange tradition in the run community is to run your age in km with your friends on your birthday!) including my own birthday run at Elk Island park. By the beginning of June, I shifted my race plan from running a 100kms at the new Klondike Ultra, to doing my first 24 hr track event with the virtual Survivorfest and knocked a significant chunk off my final total distance for the challenge. Two weeks to go and I still needed about 180km. I was exhausted. I called myself a wagon with the wheels coming off fast. I had plantar fasciitis, tight hips, messed up hormones and fatigue. My whole body was screaming at me to stop. But I felt so close, I just needed to hold on a little while longer. Stubborn. Driven. A little stupid.

I skipped some runs and walked a lot more which helped in my recovery a lot. But mostly I looked forward to the extended break from running I planned to take, starting July 1st.

I managed to complete the challenge by the end of June, thanks to some friends that agreed to help me wrap it up by running the Henday to Henday again, this time only one way for 42km. The whole thing ended rather anticlimactically. Just one last email. I submitted my results. Waited for my medal. All that work, for…well… nothing.

Looking back over the year, summed up in distance, pace and Strava captions, I am reminded of how little life typically changes in a day, but how much it changes in 365 of them. For all the loss that happened over the course of 4800km, there was much to be gained as well. The pandemic ushered in a collective universal grief our generation had never known before, but also showed us how to appreciate what we have in new ways. For me, the other side of the grief of this past year is the bittersweet beauty of what I’ve gained; I have a new career trajectory, improved relationship, more time with my kids and am a stronger runner.  It is sometimes hard to accept, but the ugly and the beautiful parts of life can coexist in tension. A dichotomy we wish we could do without, but it just doesn’t work that way. We wouldn’t recognize the beautiful if we didn’t acknowledge all the other stuff.

My Great Canadian Crossing medal is in a way, the beautiful representation of a whole lot of ugly that it took to get there. And while I sure wish we could go back in time and never experience the shitshow of 2020 that never seems to end, I’m just gonna hang that medal up, cause it’s pretty and I earned it.  

Wild Woman Challenge

I did something a little ridiculous last weekend… which I’m sure comes as no surprise to any of you that have ever read my blog before. (Don’t worry, this adventure didn’t end with a sliced open head…missed that story? Read it here)

You may have heard of 4x4x48 challenge put out there by Dave Goggins, the former Navy Seal who makes it his life goal to find new levels of pain in endurance sports. The premise of the challenge is this; run 4 miles, every 4 hours for 48 hours. Sounds awful, right? Yep. So of course, I wanted to try it. I knew it would be easier then running 160 kms all at once at Sinister 7 or 160 kms in 24 hours in a repetitive loop every hour at Quarantine Backyard Ultra, but it certainly is not easy, by any means!

However, I’m not really interested in writing a lot about the run part of the weekend…the quick summary goes like this. Run, eat, sleep a bit, chaffing, sore muscles, irritated plantar fasciitis, mental fatigue blah blah blah. If you’ve ever read anything about endurance sport the story is the same. It’s hard, it hurts, you do it anyway, its awesome in the end, and then I write about it. But what I’m more interested in writing about today is Joy.

Yep. Joy.

Remember that feeling? Remember when we used to do fun things with fun people? Remember parties and concerts and travel and dining out with friends? What do you remember most about those things? Probably that you were really happy in those moments. That you could truly surrender to the good feelings because everyone around you was feeling good too and you got to just enjoy experiencing the same good thing. There is something incredibly powerful about collective experiences as a way to express joy. It’s vulnerable. And it takes a level of courage you simply cannot practice in isolation. We often think of going through difficult emotions as being hard, but experiencing joy is hard too, just in a different way. Our brains are hard wired towards the negative. It’s a protective mechanism we’ve evolved in order to keep us constantly on alert for danger; vigilant for survival. Allowing ourselves to feel truly, uninhibitedly joyful somehow feels like a denial of negativity or hardship, as though we don’t deserve to feel good things if life feels difficult.

It’s been a tough year for everyone, and we can all agree that joy has been really hard to come by. Restrictions mean we have lost the opportunities for collective experiences, and the messaging around interacting with others been ridiculously confusing. We can shop at Walmart or be around people for work, but social gatherings are not allowed. As though Covid is only spread when people smile and socialize, not when they interact for economic gain. I mean, I get it, I’m not arguing the rules…but you have to admit it feels more like orders from the ‘Fun Police’ then Health Authorities.

Anyway, back to the 4x4x48 Challenge. I knew I wanted to do it, but I wanted to make it as fun as possible. For me, that meant it needed to include people, it needed to be interesting, and it needed to be a bit absurd. Thankfully, I have plenty of people in my life ready and willing to join me in such nonsense, and soon enough we had a group of six brilliant and accomplished female ultra runners scheming how to make it an unforgettable weekend. We decided to make the challenge ours, changing the name from the Goggins 4x4x48 Challenge to Wild Women Challenge and we brainstormed all kinds of ways to up the ante. Some of us increased the distance, added elevation or speed goals to increase the difficulty of the running component of the challenge. But we also added other fun elements; like the Random Acts of Kindness run where I handed out coffee cards to people I passed on the trail (and got super embarrassed when I realized the cardboard card holder was soggy with sweat…Random Acts of Grossness…opps), or Support Local run that had a stop at a coffee shop for a cinnamon bun with my son and husband. It wasn’t realistic to do every run together as a group of six, as the drive time cut into precious sleep and recovery time, but we did manage to do a few runs as a group and they definitely were ridiculously fun.

The first night we all dressed up in our best colourful outfits and blasted dance music while we ran through downtown decked out in glow sticks and lights. I carried an 8-foot-long stick with a star on the top the whole way, pointing it like I was charging into battle. You can imagine how absurd a group of 30-40 year old mom’s looked running the streets and racing like lunatics across scatter crosswalks.  

The second night we ran at midnight in our onesies and pyjamas down the middle of residential streets as though it was the most normal thing in the world to do, laughing and shrieking the whole time like a bunch of lunatics. It was absolutely and completely serendipitous. Even though we were all exhausted from being on our second night of sleep deprivation and 80km into the challenge, I wouldn’t have traded those moments for anything.

It was very interesting to me to watch other people’s reactions as we passed them on our night runs. A few people looked up, engaged, smiled. Even fewer people sought connection by sharing a laugh or a comment. Many ignored us completely or watched with no reaction, as though acknowledging someone else’s happiness would steal from their own small supply. I worry that the difficulties of this last year have left us guarded, lost so deep in our own struggles that we have forgotten how to be vulnerable enough to share a moment of carefree happiness with a stranger. It is impossible to experience full growth in isolation from others. The mountains and valleys of the human experience demand to be shared with those around us, and just as important as it is to share your pain and sadness with others in order to heal, it is important to share the beautiful and delightful with others as well. This is what it means to be human. To look up, to smile, to acknowledge someone else’s joy and allow it to infiltrate your barriers to elevate your own mood, even just a little bit.

If all we are promised is this moment, right now. Why not make it a joyful one?

Four hours after the pyjama run, with very little sleep, I struggled through my brain fog and headed out the door for my 10th run of the challenge. For this one I had arranged to meet my friend Blake who lives in the next neighbourhood. As we started down the sidewalk, he asked how I was doing and I laughed and said “I’m pretty tired, but can’t really complain can I? I’m doing this to myself for no reason. I’m not really sure why”.

Without hesitating, he said “To feel alive”.

There it is. That’s it.

There have been many moments of sadness this year. Countless moments of boredom, restlessness and frustration. Of anger and indignation. There has been that gutting loneliness when the Zoom call ends and your phone is too quiet. The quiet resignation of not smiling at strangers at the grocery store because they can’t see it anyway. The helplessness of isolation. All of these experiences are part of what it means to be alive and are necessary for growth into our own fullness and I am not denying the significance of the things we are all going through these days. But it can be so tempting to let that sadness define us, to let anger or loneliness pull us under. When really, joy is just a pendulum swing away and all of it, every last drop of it, is there for us to experience.

“If you ever suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give into it…whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb” -Mary Oliver.

When I set out on the Wild Woman challenge, I held the plans loosely in open palms, much the same way I have held any plans I’ve had this last year, knowing nothing is certain except the moment we have right now. The only expectation I had was that I wanted a memorable weekend and I wanted to share it with others. I am happy to report that happened in abundance. My husband, new to running, did nearly 40 km with me over the weekend. My 13-year-old daughter Katie did 10 km with me, and my 9 year old son Levi did 8 km with me (earning him a giant cookie from a coffee shop for the Support Local theme!) In addition to the five women who also did the challenge, we were joined by several other run friends for various laps at all times of the day and night.

Over the course of the weekend, I ran 120km and completed my biggest non-race distance week ever, and while that is incredibly satisfying, its not really what I care about or what I will remember about the experience. I’ll remember the smiles, the ridiculous moments and times I fully surrendered into feeling uninhibited joy. And if any of you ever want to run down the middle of the street in your pjs, you know I’ll join ya.

I’m. All. IN.